Steve Bannon Joins Six Other Criminally Charged Ex-Trump Advisers
Steve Bannon, a former top strategist for President Trump, was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with fraud for his role in the “We Build The Wall” crowdfunding scheme. Steve Bannon Joins Six Other Criminally Charged Ex-Trump Advisers
Bannon, 66, was charged by prosecutors in the U.S. Southern District of New York with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Bannon and the three other defendants were arrested Thursday morning, prosecutors said.
Bannon specifically received over $1 million from We Build the Wall, at least some of which he used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses, according to the 24-page indictment against him and the other defendants, which was unsealed Thursday.
Bannon was fired from his role as chief strategist at the White House in August 2017, part of a housecleaning under then chief of staff John Kelly. Bannon, a former producer and documentary filmmaker, was executive chairman at Breitbart News Network before Trump hired him as campaign CEO in August 2016.
The others indicted on wired fraud and money laundering charges are: We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, 38, of Miramar Beach, Fla.; Andrew Badolato, 56, of Sarasota, Fla.; Timothy Shea, 49, of Castle Rock, Colo. Like Bannon, each faces up to 20 years in prison on each count.
In October 2019, prosecutors alleged, after Bannon, Kolfage and Badolato learned from a bank that We Build the Wall might be the target of a federal criminal investigation, they “took additional steps” to conceal fraudulent payments, including changing the organization’s website “to remove any mention of the promise that Kolfage was not being compensated.”
The organizers of “We Build the Wall” initially launched their fundraising campaign in December 2018 on GoFundMe — aiming to raise $1 billion to donate to the federal government for the construction of a wall at the southern U.S. border, something that had been a signature campaign promise of Donald Trump. After the campaign failed to hit that funding target, garnering only about $20 million from 337,518 donors, GoFundMe shut it down and issued refunds.
Kolfage, in collaboration with Bannon and Badolato, then formed a Florida-based not-for-profit corporation called “We Build the Wall Inc.” to solicit donations directly from supporters and promised funds would be used for the private construction of a border wall. The entity ultimately collected more than $25 million, according to U.S. prosecutors.
“While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” Strauss said in her statement.
Kolfage “covertly took more than $350,000 in funds that had been donated to We Build the Wall for his personal use,” according to the indictment. Kolfage, Bannon and the other two defendants used “fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements, among other ways,” to conceal the payments to Kolfage, prosecutors alleged.
According to the indictment, Kolfage “went so far as to send mass emails to his donors asking them to purchase coffee from his unrelated business, telling donors that the coffee company was the only way ‘he keeps his family fed and a roof over their head,’ because Kolfage was taking ‘no compensation’ from We Build the Wall.”
Bannon, Badolato and Shea each received hundreds thousands of dollars from We Build the Wall donations for personal expenses including “travel, hotels, consumer goods and personal credit card debts,” per the indictment.
Steve Bannon Charged In Border-Wall Fundraising Scheme
Former Trump adviser and three others indicted on fraud charges over activities involving online crowdfunding campaign called We Build the Wall.
Former senior Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested and charged with fraud Thursday in connection with an alleged scheme to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars from a crowdfunding campaign backing one of the president’s signature promises: building a wall along the southern U.S. border.
The We Build the Wall campaign raised more than $25 million, according to prosecutors from the Southern District of New York, which brought the case. The group, which isn’t connected to President Trump but was promoted by several people close to him, has spent less than half its funds on two short stretches of wall in New Mexico and Texas.
“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss.
Ms. Strauss assumed leadership of the nation’s most prominent federal prosecutor’s office after Mr. Trump ousted former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman at the request of Attorney General William Barr in June. A law-enforcement official said Mr. Barr was briefed on the case before Thursday’s arrests but declined to elaborate.
In addition to Mr. Bannon, the indictment charges Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Mr. Bannon pleaded not guilty Thursday afternoon. Appearing by videoconference wearing a white face mask and pale button-down shirt, he rocked back and forth while the judge, in a separate video screen, conducted the arraignment.
Mr. Bannon, who is due back in court on Aug. 31, was released after agreeing to a $5 million bond. He is required to follow travel restrictions including not traveling on private airplanes, yachts or boats without the judge’s permission.
Mr. Badolato, a longtime associate of Mr. Bannon’s who briefly wrote for the conservative website Breitbart News, and Mr. Kolfage, an Air Force veteran who founded We Build the Wall and ran Facebook pages and related sites that promoted right-wing conspiracy theories, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Mr. Shea, the host of a conservative website called Patriot Uprising, couldn’t be reached.
Thursday’s indictment marked the latest chapter in Mr. Bannon’s fall from power, after the former investment banker and media executive parlayed his understanding of conservative media into top jobs in Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and then the White House before the president removed him seven months later.
Mr. Bannon faces another probe. Federal and state authorities are investigating a media company linked to Mr. Bannon and exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui that raised more than $300 million in a private offering this spring, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday.
It also emerged this week that the Senate Intelligence Committee referred Mr. Bannon last year to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, according to a person familiar with the matter, believing he had lied to congressional investigators during the panel’s yearslong probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. It isn’t known whether law-enforcement officials have examined the referral.
Mr. Bannon has declined to comment on the Guo investigation. His lawyer has said he wasn’t aware of the Senate committee’s referral.
Mr. Bannon was arrested Thursday on a yacht near Connecticut belonging to Mr. Guo, who said he had allowed the former adviser to stay there to protect him from the coronavirus.
Mr. Guo, in an online broadcast, said Mr. Bannon had demanded to know why he was so cheerful Thursday. “It makes me happy to see you arrested,” Mr. Guo said he responded. Going to jail would strengthen Mr. Bannon’s resolve to fight China’s Communist Party, he said.
Mr. Bannon joins a half-dozen other Trump associates who have been indicted or convicted in recent years, including the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and his longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone.
Mr. Trump on Thursday told reporters both that he didn’t know anything about the We Build the Wall campaign and that he didn’t like the project, saying he thought it was “being done for showboating reasons.” He said he hadn’t dealt with Mr. Bannon “for a very long period of time.”
Mr. Bannon has long been a forceful backer of the president’s campaign promise to build a wall along the southern U.S. border “and eventually make Mexico pay for it.” In the early days of the administration, Mr. Bannon memorialized the pledge on a dry-erase board in his West Wing office. He continued pushing for a wall after leaving the White House in 2017.
We Build the Wall isn’t connected to Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign or administration, though the crowdfunding effort was praised by several members of the president’s inner circle and relied on the Trump family to appear credible. The website features pictures of Donald Trump Jr., one of the president’s sons, and quotes him at a 2018 event calling the group “private enterprise at its finest.”
Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump Jr., said he gave a speech at one We Build the Wall event and “besides that, has no involvement with their organization.” She said Mr. Trump Jr. was unaware that the group had featured him as a testimonial on its website and that he hadn’t given his permission. “If he and others were deceived, the group deserves to be held accountable for their actions,” she said.
Since December 2018, prosecutors said, Messrs. Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato and Shea convinced people to donate to the We Build the Wall campaign, telling the public they do “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that “100% of the funds raised…will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose.” They said Mr. Bannon stated publicly, “We’re a volunteer organization.”
Instead, the four men received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds from the organization, prosecutors said. Mr. Kolfage took more than $350,000, which he used to pay for a golf cart, a luxury SUV, cosmetic surgery and other expenses, according to the indictment. Mr. Bannon received more than $1 million, prosecutors said.
We Build the Wall has touted raising more than $25 million from 500,000 donors.
Among the early supporters was an Austin, Texas, boy named Benton Stevens, who raised about $22,000 by selling hot chocolate and lemonade.
His mother, Jennifer Stevens, said Thursday that she and her family were surprised by the news that Messrs. Kolfage and Bannon are accused of fraud. She said Benton, now 8, has visited a half-mile stretch of private border wall in New Mexico and signed his name on one of the posts.
“Whether they did or didn’t I have absolutely no idea,” Ms. Stevens said. “There were certainly no indications that there was any wrongdoing going on in the interactions that I had with them.”
That stretch of wall in Sunland Park, N.M., was the group’s first project. Built by construction firm Fisher Industries, it cost about $9 million.
Fisher Industries, a firm trying to showcase its construction to secure federal contracts, then moved on to build a $40 million private wall on the South Texas border early this year. We Build the Wall contributed less than $2 million and repeatedly claimed credit for the build.
Mr. Kolfage said in December that the group had spent at least $1 million hosting events and paying lawyers and that it had $8 million in the bank and $5 million in pledges. But the group’s claims and fundraising have drawn legal scrutiny, including an investigation in Florida, where it is registered as a nonprofit.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said Thursday the state investigation remains active. Now that officers of the nonprofit have been charged, its charity status is immediately suspended, the agency said.
Mr. Kolfage has defended taking credit for the South Texas wall even though his organization was little involved. “We created this movement,” he said in a December interview. “It doesn’t matter how much money we put down, we’re taking ownership.”
How Many Trump Advisers Have Been Criminally Charged? Manafort, Stone And Steve Bannon Makes 7
Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, seven former advisers who served at the White House or worked in the campaign have been swept up in criminal prosecutions.
Six of the aides were charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. (Mueller’s investigation resulted in indictments for 34 individuals overall.)
A seventh, former White House adviser Steve Bannon, was named in an indictment unsealed Thursday in an unrelated federal investigation into a border wall funding campaign. That inquiry is headed by federal prosecutors assigned to Manhattan’s Southern District of New York.
Bannon, a former chief White House strategist, was one of four people charged by federal prosecutors with fraud in connection with a border wall fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million, officials said Thursday.
The indictment accused Bannon and the others of “defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors” in the “We Build the Wall” crowdfunding campaign to finance one of Trump’s signature programs.
Bannon is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted in August 2018 of tax and bank fraud charges related to his decade-long work as a lobbyist in Ukraine. He pleaded guilty a month later to related charges of failing to disclose his lobbying work and tampering with witnesses.
Manafort was sentenced to a combined 7.5 years in prison, but he was released to home confinement in May because of the health risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic in federal prison.
This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded in its investigation of Russian election interference that Manafort, while serving as Trump campaign chairman, repeatedly discussed the campaign’s work with longtime associate Konstantin Kilimnik, who was a Russian intelligence agent.
Roger Stone, a longtime Republican political operative who advised Trump during the campaign, was convicted of lying to Congress and obstructing its investigation into Russian election meddling and sentenced to three years in prison.
Last month, Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime confidant, just days before Stone was set to report to prison.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about meetings with Russians while in the White House. He cooperated with Mueller under a plea agreement.
In May 2020, the Justice Department abruptly dropped its case against the retired general.
In July, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., agreed to rehear Flynn’s case, a move that could resume the challenge to the Justice Department’s decision to abandon its prosecution.
Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were a central reason he was forced out of the White House. Pence publicly announced that Flynn assured him the subject of sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia were not raised in his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election. Authorities who had monitored communications involving foreign diplomats knew that was not the case.
The Justice Department warned the White House that Russian officials, aware that Flynn had misled the White House, could have threatened to expose the nature of the communications as a way to gain leverage over Flynn in his sensitive security role.
What’s more, authorities viewed Flynn’s contacts with Russian diplomats as improper while the Obama administration was still in office – and a possible sign the Trump administration may have been trying to roll back sanctions imposed for Russia’s campaign of cyberattacks and fake news to influence the election. Flynn was forced out in February.
George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to FBI agents about his communications with people who represented themselves as tied to the Russian government.
A professor linked to the Kremlin told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” Papadopoulos tried repeatedly to set up meetings between the Russian government and Trump campaign officials, with the help of the “professor” and other well-connected Russian contacts, the court filing shows, and suggested he could set up a meeting between Trump and the Russians during a campaign foreign policy advisory meeting attended by President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Papadopoulos served 14 days in prison and was ordered to pay a $9,500 fine and complete 200 hours of community service.
The president distanced himself from Papadopoulos after the guilty plea was made public, calling him a “low level volunteer.” Yet Trump touted Papadopoulos as an “excellent guy” in an interview with The Washington Post in March 2016.
Rick Gates was referred to as the “right-hand man” of Manafort before and during the campaign and also headed Trump’s inaugural committee. Gates had been charged with conspiracy, money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent as well as making false statements to investigators in the special counsel investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The indictment said Gates used money from the illicit accounts to pay for his mortgage, his children’s tuition and interior decorating of his Virginia residence. He pleaded guilty in February 2018 to conspiracy and lying to FBI agents and prosecutors. He cooperated with Mueller. In 2019 he was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer pleaded guilty in November 2018 to lying to Congress about a proposed real-estate deal in Moscow. He also pleaded guilty in August 2018 to charges related to making hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had sex with Trump. Cohen was sentenced in December 2018 to three years in prison.
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